Importance of Railroads

Importance of Railroads


Settlement and Development of the United States

“The need for efficient, and fast transportation changed America, from the time of the earliest settlers in the 1500’s until today. Early settlers used boats to travel on the rivers and lakes; early canals, such as the Erie Canal, were not opened until 1825…it revolutionized travel and freight transportation between the Hudson River and Buffalo, NY. Until around 1880, the main form of travel until the 1880’s was by water, horse or on foot. It took that long, before the entire United States was linked by rail. Railroads were particularly important in the establishment and settlement of cities west of the Mississippi River.

The development of the railroad system in the United States began virtually at the same time the Erie Canal was completed. It took the next forty years before the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. But still more was needed: the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its transcontinental railroad line from St. Paul, MN to Tacoma, WA in 1873, and the Southern Pacific completed its Sunset Route Transcontinental to New Orleans in 1883. The Santa Fe was the last major Transcontinental line, linking Chicago and Los Angeles in 1888. Many barriers to early efficient transportation remained: important railroad bridges or ferry boats and tunnels did not exist: it was not until 1910 that trains could travel directly from Newark, NJ under the Hudson River to New York City. The Moffat Tunnel, was not completed until 1928; it was the first time trains could travel under the Rocky Mountains, not over them. The same occurred in Canada: the first transcontinental railroad linking Montreal and Vancouver, BC was not opened until 1887.

For a list of important Bridges, Tunnels, Mountain passes and grades see

For more early history read: “A Short History of American Railways Covering Ten Decades” by Slason Thompson · 1925 (a good overview of the evolution of the railroad industry 1820-1920)

Accomplishments over the years

  • Rapid Growth in Population of most early cities (thru 1920) were tied to railroad access. In 1850, there were 20,000 persons living in Chicago. By 1880, the population exploded to 500,000-almost entirely because Chicago became a railroad hub. The same story was repeated time and time again, city by city. More than 7,000 cities and towns west of the Missouri began as Union Pacific depots and water stops. [1] The same changes occurred in many other cities across the country. Many cities became “Railroad Towns**” – cities that were platted by the railroad, or where the railroad was the largest employer in town. Other cities grew much more rapidly after the railroad arrived.…all because of access to railroads.
    **(See Report 353
  • Railroads were an important part in the settlement of the western states**. Low cost railroad fares, the sale of railroad Land grant lands, combined with the Homestead Act, attracted millions of settlers and immigrants from the eastern U.S. and Europe. These families became the core of America west of the Mississippi River.
  • Travel times have been speeded dramatically. It is said that it took Kentucky Senator Henry Clay two weeks to travel from his home in Lexington, KY to Washington, DC. In the early 1900’s a person could travel overnight on the Chesapeake & Ohio’s trains between those points. Today many passenger trains operate at 150 to 200 miles per hour, providing timely and efficient transportation. In many cities around the world it is faster and less expensive to travel between cities by train than by airplane, when travel time and cost to and from the airport, security lines, and waiting room times are considered.
  • Value of product transported is increased substantially by moving it close to its ultimate use or consumption; examples are iron ore, coal and corn. These products have very little value “in place, in the ground”. Example: In the 1800’s, in the Midwest, farmers were limited to selling their corn to people in the area around the farms. Because of limited demand, prices were low. Once the railroads reached an area, corn prices increased dramatically, because of increased demand with no increase in farm acreage. It is said that a farmer could pay for the entire purchase price of his farm in one year after the railroad came through.
  • Everything from the mail, food, retail goods we purchase, lumber and motor vehicles was and is transported on the railways – our society as we know it simply could not function without the railroad. [2] In the early 1900’s, over 90% of the country’s intercity mail traveled by rail.
  • Railroads reduce wear, tear, and congestion that trucks produce on our highways. Just imagine what the highways would look like without the railroads!!
  • Today, railroads transport roughly 40% of all long distance freight today.
  • Railroad locomotives produce 75% less Greenhouse Gas emissions per ton mile of freight moved, compared with trucks. And, future generations of locomotives will be even more environmentally friendly. [3]
  • Fuel Efficiency and Energy conservation-on average, a railroad can move one ton of freight more than 500 miles, making them 3-4 times more fuel efficient than trucks.. [4, 7]

[3] “Shipping by Rail Helps Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions”
[4] How Far can a Single gallon of Fuel Take a Ton of Freight by Rail?
[5] “Railway post offices moved the mail across country”
[6] “A Short History of American Railways Covering Ten Decades” by Slason Thompson 1925 (a good overview of the evolution of the railroad industry 1820-1920)
[7] “How Are Locomotives Getting More Fuel Efficient for the Railroad Industry?